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Losing the Bay of Bengal

The next government must recognise that it is not a backwater but a strategic hub

As India dithered, China has deepened trans-frontier economic integration with most member states of the BIMSTEC, especially Thailand, Myanmar, Bangladesh and Nepal. As India dithered, China has deepened trans-frontier economic integration with most member states of the BIMSTEC, especially Thailand, Myanmar, Bangladesh and Nepal.

The next government must recognise that it is not a backwater but a strategic hub.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to Nay Pyi-Taw this week to attend a regional summit brings his decade of leadership of Indian diplomacy to a virtual close. His first trip abroad after he became prime minister in 2004 was to Bangkok to attend the first summit of the very same organisation with the rather ungainly name, the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC). His last foreign tour to the BIMSTEC summit in Myanmar is a good moment to reflect on the gap between Singh’s ambitious regional vision and the difficulties he has had in implementing it.

When the BIMSTEC was set up in 1997, it seemed a huge opportunity for India to break out of the stagnant regionalism in the subcontinent. If the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) was hobbled by Pakistan’s hostility towards India, the BIMSTEC was to provide an alternative route to regional integration between the eastern subcontinent and Southeast Asia. But the BIMSTEC today remains as ineffective as the SAARC. Delhi must own a lot of the blame.

Consider, for example, the question of trans-border connectivity, which has become a buzz word in Indian diplomacy over the last few years. Singh has made connecting India’s Northeast to Southeast Asia through Myanmar a major strategic objective. India is also the coordinator for connectivity projects in the BIMSTEC. Delhi has sought to promote two different important trans-border transport projects. One would link the Indian mainland to the Northeast through Myanmar with a multi-modal transport corridor. By skirting the long Siliguri Corridor, the project would provide the Northeast much-needed access to the Bay of Bengal. The second was to develop an overland highway between India’s Northeast and Thailand through Myanmar. After more than a decade of talk, both projects remain unfinished.

Thailand has also been knocking at India’s door for another trilateral project, which would build a sea/ land corridor across the Bay of Bengal, from Chennai to Dawei on the southern tip of Myanmar and then on to Bangkok. The Asian Development Bank has been eager to support connectivity projects within the subcontinent and between South and Southeast Asia.

Japan would like to build networks linking peninsular India to Southeast Asia. China has been pressing India to join in the construction of overland connectivity between southwest China, Myanmar and Bangladesh — the so-called BCIM corridor. The United States has extended strong political support to developing horizontal connectivity between India and East Asia. Many international investors have shown interest in developing a trans-shipment hub in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, which sit at the very heart of the Bay of Bengal and right on top of one of the world’s busiest sea lines of communication.

Never before have so many different international actors — both friends and rivals — been so eager to promote strategic connectivity between India and its eastern neighbourhood. Yet, Delhi has failed to capitalise on the opportunities that have presented themselves over the last decade. Where it did make the right moves, for example with Dhaka, the UPA government lost its political nerve at the last moment, thereby squandering the possibilities for comprehensive transit arrangements with Bangladesh.

As India dithered, China deepened trans-frontier economic integration with most member states of the BIMSTEC, especially Thailand, Myanmar, Bangladesh and Nepal. Bhutan and India are the only exceptions. Sri Lanka, where China is building much infrastructure, is now central to Beijing’s grand objective of building a maritime silk road. If India’s projects have languished for more than a decade, China has built oil and gas pipelines linking its Yunnan province to Myanmar’s Arakan coast in barely four years.

Meanwhile, China’s Qinghai-Tibet Railway is ready to move towards Nepal. Beijing has plans to build high-speed train links from Yunnan into Thailand, Myanmar and Bangladesh. It is of little consolation to recall that the Indian Railways, under the British Raj, was the first to survey the route for a rail road through Burma to Yunnan in the late 19th century.

As China transforms the economic and political geography of the Bay of Bengal, Delhi seems trapped in a strange lassitude. In urgently addressing the challenges in the Bay of Bengal, Singh’s successor must focus on a few corrective policies.

For one, the next government must recognise that the Bay of Bengal is no longer a backwater but a strategic hub connecting the Indian and Pacific Oceans as well as China and the Bay of Bengal. Delhi must match its rhetoric on trans-border connectivity with much needed political will and administrative competence. The foreign office can set the right goals, but it is up to the rest of the government to deliver. India’s talk on trans-national corridors will remain meaningless if it can’t improve connectivity within its border regions. The expansive goals for rail and road connectivity in the Northeast, for example, remain largely on paper.

Delhi will have to put in place effective mechanisms for the timely implementation of key infrastructure projects, within its frontiers and across them. China’s spectacular success in developing trans-border connectivity is only an extension of its effective infrastructure development in its border regions. If the public sector that India has relied on for implementing strategic projects across borders has repeatedly disappointed, private corporations have not shown great enthusiasm either. Those that did venture across, found themselves trapped in the domestic political turmoil of the neighbouring countries and have complained of a lack of sufficient diplomatic support from Delhi.

To avoid further marginalisation in the Bay of Bengal, Delhi needs a strong leadership that can effectively combine a vigorous strategy for domestic growth and the rapid development of its border regions with the imperatives of India’s economic regionalism. The rest of the world is ready to chip in.

The writer, a distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, is contributing editor for ‘The Indian Express

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